Two years into the illnesses that led to my mother’s death, she was hospitalized for ten days. Her legs had stopped functioning; she had lost the ability to speak coherently. We found she had thyroid cancer and she nearly died twice. After so many days of being stuck in bed and hooked up to tubes, she was transferred to a skilled nursing unit. The staff there put her in a big Barcalounger of sorts that can get wet and let her take a shower for the first time in ten days. The aide reported that Mom sang so loudly in the shower, you could hear her down the hallway.
Ever need a shower that badly? One summer I worked as a counselor at a camp that had no shower facilities. At the end of the first week, my fellow counselors and I angled to be first in the shower even before the campers had all been picked up. By the end of the third session however, we all politely offered for the others to shower first. We had become comfortable with being dirty.
I think we can get comfortable with our sinfulness and ignore our need for a spiritual shower, in much the same way. People today talk more about mistakes rather than sins. Often situations are framed solely in terms of moving from good to better. I am not calling for a return to the infamous Catholic guilt, but each of us does make selfish choices daily. I am currently struggling with a hormone imbalance which is urging me to lean into all my worst behavior patterns. When I do, it is obviously not all my fault but why do I have negative behavior patterns to begin with? Because I am a sinful person and no matter how hard I work, I will always be a sinful person. And, if I may be so bold, this is the case for you, too.
The Good News we celebrate this week is that we have a way out of this mess: Jesus gets baptized and establishes for us a ritual action to remove the sinfulness in our souls. The early Church struggled with this story, as we might, wondering why Jesus needed to get baptized at all. What is the message in his action? Luke describes the scene thus: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” Luke places Jesus in the midst of all the people getting baptized. His baptism is a clear statement of his solidarity with us in the mess of being human. Jesus doesn’t squeamishly pick up our filthy humanity in his fingertips; rather, he stands in the crowds of people coming to John for baptism and takes the plunge with them.
This baptism marks the start of something radically new, signaled by an amazing epiphany. God comes to us like an arrow piercing the world: “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.” This baptism hails the opportunity for our souls to get their much-needed shower. We have God with us in our daily humanity. We can be more than our patterns of negative behavior. They can be conquered. As Paul writes to Titus, we can “reject godless ways and worldly desires and… live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”
Why celebrate anybody’s spiritual bath when we still choose our patterns of negative behavior? Indeed, we live in between, in the “Already and the Not Yet” of God’s Kingdom. We know that Jesus’ baptism is just the beginning of his ministry, with many miracles yet to perform and a passion still to be endured. We know that our baptisms are just beginnings, with many negative behavior patterns still to over come.
Yet, Jesus is already baptized and we are already baptized, so goodness is possible for us now, today. Paul asks us to celebrate what Jesus has achieved and align ourselves with the good. Jesus “saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” and we “become heirs in hope of eternal life.” Let us savor the shower our souls have received from our God who is in the tub with us.
- Identify a particularly “stubborn stain,” a negative behavior pattern you often fall into. Each time you find yourself doing it or thinking it, pray, “Lord, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Psalms 51:7)
- We celebrate the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when we celebrate his baptism. Where is a new beginning needed in your life? Invite Jesus to dive in with you.